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Baillie, Joanna

Joanna Baillie

Scottish playwright and poet Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) was one of the most acclaimed literary figures of her day, despite the inescapable fact that she was female. Her work, which included over 25 plays and dozens of poems, was hailed by contemporaries in Great Britain and the United States, but fell largely into obscurity after her death on February 23, 1851. Happily, a resurgence of interest in the 20th century resulted in the artist finally receiving the long-term recognition she deserved.

Early Times

Joanna Baillie was born prematurely on September 11, 1762 in Bothwell, Scotland to the Reverend James Baillie and the former Dorothea Hunter. Her twin sister died shortly after birth, but she had two older siblings, Agnes and Matthew, with whom she would become very close. Her father was a Church of Scotland minister who claimed descent from legendary Scottish patriot William Wallace (c. 1270–1305), whose story was told in the popular Hollywood movie Braveheart in 1995. Baillie's mother was a sister of the famous physicians and anatomists, William and John Hunter.

Fond of the outdoors, Baillie spent more of her early years horseback riding, swimming, and scaling roofs than immersed in schoolwork; there is speculation that she did not learn to read until she was 11 years old. This lack did not inhibit her active imagination however, as she reveled in listening to ghost stories and making up tales and playlets of her own. But it was not until she and her sister attended boarding school that she received the intellectual stimulation that allowed her inherent talents to blossom.

Baillie's family had moved to Hamilton in 1769 so that the reverend could take a position at the collegiate church. About three years later, the Baillie sisters were sent to Miss McDonald's Boarding School in Glasgow. There, Baillie finally developed an interest in books, as well as inclinations toward drawing, music, and, interestingly, mathematics. She also attended the theater for the first time giving rise to an overriding and lifelong passion for the stage. Although her natural high spirits remained intact, they were becoming tempered and enhanced by the benefits of a formal education.

Coped with Changes

In 1776, Baillie's father moved the entire family to Glasgow after he accepted a job as professor of divinity at Glasgow University. Fate then took a sad turn when the reverend died just two years later, leaving three teenagers and a widow with very little inheritance. The family thus fell under the protection of Baillie's uncle, William Hunter, who took up his charge admirably. Brother Matthew was dispatched to Oxford to study medicine and engaged as an apprentice at his uncle's School of Anatomy, while Baillie's mother was provided with a lifetime allowance and a home (with her daughters) at her family's estate in Long Calderwood. The Baillie women were uprooted once again upon William Hunter's death in 1783. This time, they moved to London, England, to run the household on Windmill Street that Matthew had inherited from his uncle. After Matthew's marriage in 1791, his mother and sisters relocated to Hampstead, where they found domestic stability and lived out the remainder of their years.

Baillie thrived in London. Her aunt, Anne Hunter, wife of her mother's other brother, John, was a poet of some note. The niece was thus able to make the acquaintance of various members of the London literati, which surely gave her incentive to follow her dreams of writing. While still on Windmill Street, she read widely and began to write in earnest. Most of those maiden efforts never saw the light of day, but a volume of poetry with the improbable and unwieldy title Poems: Wherein it is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners; and also, to Point Out, in Some Instances, the Different Influence Which the Same Circumstances Produce on Different Characters was published in 1790. It appeared anonymously and received little notice at the time, but it did nonetheless mark the beginning of Baillie's career.

Anonymous to Famous

In 1798, a trio of plays was published under the once again unlikely title of A Series of Plays: In Which it is Attempted to Delineate the Stronger Passions of the Mind, Each Passion Being the Subject of a Tragedy and a Comedy. The lengthy introduction to the volume explained the author's intention to examine each of the major passions of humankind within a play, while dramatizing the often hidden psychological processes behind them. The author, however, remained anonymous, and London literary circles were instantly abuzz with speculation as to who could have come up with such a novel approach to the writing of plays. Naturally enough for the time, the initial consensus was that some erudite man of letters had penned the work. When that supposition failed to produce an author, lesser male lights were considered and then, finally, women. None though, considered the possibility that this new sensation might be the unassuming Scottish spinster of 36 who was often seen on the periphery of various literary gatherings around town. In fact, it was not until the work was rechristened with the shorter title of Plays on the Passions shortly after its original publication, was in its third printing in 1800 that Baillie revealed herself as the author. Astonished, the London literary in-crowd welcomed their newest genius with mostly open arms.

Volume 1 of Plays on the Passions consisted of Basil, a tragedy on love, The Tryal, a comedy on love, and De Monfort, a tragedy on hatred. De Monfort opened on April 29, 1800, at London's Drury Lane Theater with noted actor John Philip Kemble and his sister, Sarah Siddons, in the leading roles. Although the play became one of Baillie's most popular and most often staged, its run at the Drury Lane lasted only 11 nights and boded an ongoing problem the playwright would have with getting her work moved from the page to the boards. Still, the play and the volume in which it first appeared had secured Baillie's place as a preeminent author of her age.

Body of Work

A second volume of Plays of the Passions appeared under Baillie's name in 1802. It contained The Election, a comedy on hatred, Ethwald, a tragedy in two parts on ambition, and The Second Marriage, a comedy on ambition. That was followed up by Miscellaneous Plays in 1804 (reprinted in 1805) and the Scottish drama called The Family Legend in 1810. The latter included a prologue written by Baillie's friend Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), the well known poet and novelist, and was staged in Edinburgh in 1810 and at the Drury Lane in 1815. In 1812, the third and final volume of Plays on the Passions was published. It was comprised of two tragedies, Orra and The Siege, and a comedy, The Alienated Manor, based on fear, and a musical drama on hope titled The Beacon.

After a hiatus of several years, Baillie began to expand her literary efforts beyond the theater. Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters (1821) was a work of narrative poetry that told the stories of such historical figures as her ancestor William Wallace and explorer Christopher Columbus. She then turned to editing, as she collected and prepared for publication an anthology of new poetry by leading writers of the day titled A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript, and from Living Authors, (1823). The collection was both philanthropic and therapeutic. It was produced for the financial benefit of a widowed friend and was compiled while Baillie was nursing her beloved brother through an illness from which he did not, sadly, recover. He died September 23, 1823.

Baillie's later work explored some new themes and styles, while revisiting themes found in her earlier works. The Martyr (1826), for instance was a tragedy about religion, while 1831's A View of the General Tenour (sic) of the New Testament Regarding the Nature and Dignity of Jesus Christ was a serious philosophical analysis of various religious doctrines. A second edition of 1823's collection of poems was published in 1832 and 1836 saw the release of Dramas, a three-volume set of plays. Fugitive Verses, which included writings from Scottish folk songs to hymns, elegies, and poetry (including some verses from her first publication in 1790), appeared in 1840. Ahalya Baee: A Poem (1849) was the last of the author's new material, but her collected works were compiled in what Baillie termed a “great monster book” entitled The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie, Complete in One Volume. It was published in 1851, shortly before Baillie's death on February 23, and had two subsequent printings.

Life Well Lived

Although Baillie's long life was not without its disappointment and sorrow, it was also immensely productive and well-lived. Her writing had its detractors, of course, and she reportedly was always unhappy that her plays were so rarely staged. Nonetheless, her work was generally ranked among the very best of its time by her contemporaries, and its success provided the author with a comfortable income. That respect from the literati did not, however, extend as fully to the general public. Baillie's works were never as widely read as those of her friend Scott, for example, and that may be the reason she fell into relative obscurity after her death. She would thus undoubtedly be gratified by the resurgence of interest in her writing precipitated by Margaret S. Carhart's 1923 biography, The Life and Work of Joanna Baillie, and furthered by the republishing and publishing of her poetry, plays, and letters in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. No author, but least of all one as diligent and prolific as Baillie, writes to become forgotten.

Baillie's personal life was also largely admired. After their mother died in 1806, Baillie and her sister were housemates and companions the remainder of their lives. Hospitable, intelligent, and modest, Baillie traveled throughout Europe, was an active correspondent, and maintained a busy social calendar. She was also a devoted daughter and sister, having cared for both her mother and brother during the illnesses that brought about their passing. Further, she had a lifelong commitment to philanthropy that was inspiring. Among her many laudable efforts in the last regard, Baillie customarily donated half of earnings to charity. And, as noted above, A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript, and from Living Authors was compiled to help out a friend. Yet another example of Baillie's good works was the Edinburgh staging of The Family Legend, the proceeds of which went to a different financially troubled family of her acquaintance. Clearly, the high regard that Baillie enjoyed was well deserved.

As interest in the professional and personal life of Baillie increases, her importance as a literary figure and female writer of the Romantic period is likely to continue to be reassessed and gain momentum. The long-term recognition she had worked for all her life appeared to, at long last, be close at hand.


Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 93: British Romantic Poets, 1789-1832, First Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by John R. Greenfield, McKendree College. The Gale Group, 1990.


Sunday Times (London, England), May 26, 2002.

Times (London, England), February 23, 1990.


“Baillie, Joanna,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (November 30, 2007).

“First 100 Years,” Juggernaut Theatre Company, (November 30, 2007).

“Rounding the Circle: American Interest in Joanna Baillie (1762-1851),” Scotland's Transatlantic Relations, April 2004, (November 30, 2007).

“Scott, Sir Walter,” Columbia Encyclopedia, (December 31, 2007).

“Sir William Wallace,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia, (December 31, 2007).

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